Thursday, July 4, 2013

Dances With Myths: Indigenous Native Peoples and Fire Ecology

Fire Ecology: Hopeless Evironmental Romantics  say the darndest things!
Artist: Frederic Remington (1861-1909) - Amon Carter Museum of American Art
Can anyone tell me what's wrong with this picture ? Really ? Is something really wrong here ? Well, maybe or maybe not, but I'll deal with this further below.
These are just some of my own personal thoughts and observations that I have made over the years on Fire Ecology and benefits to Nature. Or could there be other means of Natural Ecosystem maintenance that has been ignored. I've pondered some of the justification for the present world policies of Prescribed or Controlled Burning Policies as a means of Mega-Fire prevention under the guise of modern Science and saying things like,  "It's healthy for Nature because Indians did it for centuries" and it just doesn't make any eco-sense to not do it. Also any quotes or references I make in this post are not reflective of the people or sites I am referencing, but I simply want everyone to sit and digest or mediate (not talking mind emptying Eastern religious stuff here), but on some of the common sense things I'll bring or point out below.

It has been popular and indeed romanticized for some years now as to the instinctive natural ecological-intuitiveness of the North American Natives (or other indigenous peoples in remote parts of the Earth) and their supposed uncanny understanding of caring for the Land. Certainly for myself, I have always been intrigued and curious as to just how Native Americans lived off the land ever since I was a kid in the early 1960s and found my first evidence of a couple of villages or settlements behind my house. This curiosity and/or obsession of mine has led not only towards my originally narrowed interest in plants, but well beyond with regards other environmental elements in Nature with regards the Natural World's entire mechanisms as a whole. A big part of my learning has always been replication and practical application of what I observe. I would have to imagine that life for the Natives must have involved quite a bit of success and failure or hit and miss when it came to survival. One advantage they would have had back then is none of the distractions we have today. They had plenty of time on their hands for observation which would have been necessary to properly develop which techniques would be key to survival. As the title above suggests, there have been a number of stories about the natives which continue to this day. And the title is also the name of a Book published with the same name (Dances with Myths) which offers several quotes like the ones below which often influence land management policy makers who are bent on a certain specific artificial conservation application for no other logical reason than because, "Well, this is what the Indians did"
Herb Hammond from Sierra Club book, "Clearcut"
"For many thousands of years, most of the indigenous nations on this continent practiced a philosophy of protection first and use second of the forest. In scientific terms, we recognize that their use of forest was ecologically responsible - meaning that it kept all the parts"
According to former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, 
"The Indians were, in truth, the pioneer ecologists of this country." 
From the Chaparral Institute's article: The Politics of Fire
"Historically, most of California's forests were open because Native Americans and lightning-casued fires burned regularly."  
Dr Thomas M. Bonnicksen,  2004. Restore Forests Before Memory Fades. California Forests 8: 14-15.
It's this last subject which I want to specifically address where fire ecology and plant life are concerned. The rest of it having to do with animals, etc is for another subject another day. Most global government land management programs are based on many of these legendary myths. When Scientists and other Researchers look at Nature, they see a precise organized balance in the natural world when left to it's own. Everything observed is harmonious and is only disrupted when humans come into the picture. However, often times the Natives are viewed as primitives with certain specific animal instincts when it comes to conserving and living off the land. Now, I understand some of the ideological, philosophical and even religious reasons for this view, but the reality is, those people back then & today, are just as equal a people like any folks today. Some researchers often seem to forget that they were human, a part of all mankind with the same frailties, faults, imperfections as well as ingenuity and smarts as folks today. They were not some lower animal providing an ecological niche in the ecosystems they occupied. So what I want to do is run by a couple of possible real world explanations for fire produced by Native Americans and the various reasons they were used and how possibly, some of these may have gotten out of control by accident, ignorance, stupidity, ambition, etc just like people today. See if some of these examples make sense.

The single biggest reason (myth) promoted by the experts today for Native American use of fires was for ecology and conservation. Creating food sources for game and increasing the health of the forest or grassland ecosystems. The funny thing is however, that when supposedly modern day superior intelligent humans with all their intellectual educational capacity have made practice of their presupposition about Natives for Fire Ecology programs, Nature has actually gone down hill. Gee, why is that ? Did they not perform it properly the way the Indians did ? Things really haven't improved all that much for wildlife or their vegetative environments either. That would lead us to believe then that perhaps these modern Fire Ecology experts have gotten it all wrong or perhaps they haven't quite got their technique perfected yet ? Still these myths will persist despite the failures and unproven historical control burn precedents. It is said that the plant world has evolved or adapted to these Lightning and Native fires and that is what kept forest floor under-stories clean. Really ?????  

Let's go back up to that Artist conception of American Plains Indians starting grassland fires to apparently improve Bison and/or Elk grazing range. It's the perfect vision for today's myths. I don't doubt that early pioneers of the late 1700s , but especially throughout the 1800s saw such reality of Native burning scenarios for real. But can anybody tell me when the Indians first got horses ? You do remember they were not in north America before the Spanish arrived ? Several research sites dealing with this show that the Indians didn't get horses until the Spanish brought them to the southwest where Apache and Navajo were the first to learn to utilize them. Apparently, most village sites of old, which were more like permanent civilized settlements showed that the Natives were more of a permanent resident to their localities and Nomadic habits were not fully developed until the arrival of the horse. But that's not to say there were no nomads. So prior to the Spanish, it is safe to say that all hunting was done on foot. Now the story goes that fires were started to make more grassland open country to promote animal population explosions for easier hunting. Does it seem reasonable that people on foot would want more open country to chase down creatures far superior in speed than themselves ? Yes, I'm aware of the pictures of Indians disguising themselves in wolf skins and doing that sneaking up on animal thingy, but even today in the wild, wolves and cougars miss more than they hit. I would imagine human chances would probably fare worse if it came to numbers of successes game. Recently, reading once again the diary of Juan Bautista de Anza and that of Padre Pedro Font, the Indians they mostly encountered were barely making a living and in many cases in pathetic shape. Many have no bows and arrows and were armed only with clubs. Yes there were successful villages and tribes back then who were more organized, but many were not, most likely outcasts at some historical point. It was a tough life. Horses just made it somewhat easier.
"Horses brought about a dramatic change in the Indian Culture, but horses did not materially change the Indian lifestyle. Indians still did the same things in pretty much the same ways except now they used horses. It was the Spanish horse that made it possible for the American Indians to move onto the Plains and become truly nomadic."
Artist - E. Irvine Couse

So according to the above quote, it would appear that the illustrated picture at the top of this post of Plains Indians using fire was perhaps at best only a couple of hundred years, not the imagined thousands upon thousands of years these myths demand. Incredibly, from my own experience in the San Jacinto Mountains, animals like Deer are mostly found in heavily vegetated areas of chaparral, although sometimes in open prairie, they seem to prefer cover. My bushwhacking treks have always proven that as well, as I have stumbled upon many a Deer game trail in dense cover and regularly used. I'm almost certain that Natives would have also known this and found that laying in ambush for just the most opportune moment to strike in dense cover was better than the open country which would have made element of surprise much tougher. Of course that isn't to say or rule out that some did open range hunt. But let's talk about other incidents of fire back then and compare them to today's reason that fires get started and accidentally get out of hand. (which would negate many of their purposed arguments)

Image -

Do you suppose that some camp fires were left unattended or not properly put out when moving on, especially by hunting parties ? If embers were blown to life again by stiff breezes, could that not have created a wildfire scenario, even back then ? What about villages ? Is it reasonable to believe that the Native Housewife back then in starting supper, lit a fire at an inappropriate weather moment and a wildfire resulted ?  Could one possible explanation for a wildfire be when two young boys [White Cloud Jr & Red Cloud Jr] got hold of daddy's flint stones and took off behind the hill to see if they could make fire ? What about the use of fire for war as a weapon to burn out a rival tribe or clan ? Take note of what one journal commented on when it came to reasons Native Americans used fire:
"Additionally, Native Americans could use fire as a weapon in war, to drive away their enemies. Conversely, if they were worried about an attack, they might intentionally burn the sur- rounding prairies and woodlands in a controlled fashion rather than giving their enemies the opportunity to burn it for them. Once burned and free of fuel, the blackened area became a safe zone where they could set up camp without worrying about being burned out. This also eliminated many hiding places for an approaching war party and improved visibility so they could better watch for danger. In this sense, Native Americans were practicing what we might today call “fuel load reduction."
Growing up much of my appreciation was initiated by how Native americans lived off of the land. But one of the most disappointing things I remember learning later about the Native Americans when I was growing up was discovering that often times they displayed hatred and jealousy towards one another. I realized that in so many ways, they were actually no different than the conquering Europeans who are so often vilified today. And certainly burning grasses on the plains for concentrating and chasing Bison over a cliff would have been an easy human on foot ONLY way of providing both abundance and waste. See, no difference. Doing whatever it takes for a strategic economic advantage, which ultimately had zero to do with conservation. They were no different than the Europeans when you put it into such perspective.

But let's go back to the excuse used today as to fires being used to burn off chaparral and trees to encourage grasses to grow to attract and raise more Deer, Bison or Elk, etc. (I'll get to Bison later) Can anyone tell me what the biggest complaint is by gardeners and landscapers when it comes to Deer ? Is it, "Oh I have this problem with Deer eating my grass or lawn" ? Is that really what they say ? NO! It's always about Bushes and Flowers, Tree Seedlings or Saplings etc. I don't think or could imagine that any person would mind if all they ate was grass. And yet I personally have seen more Deer feeding on shrubs and tree saplings over grasses in meadows, although they do feed on meadows and in fields of grass. But, these very large numbers of grazing animals are the one component missing today as opposed to the notion it was just about the Native Americans. The abundance of large game. There is evidence that large game like Elk and Bison roamed forests and kept the forest floor under story cleaned regularly. Over here in Europe, there was a documentary from Germany which explained how meadows and fields of former east Germany were kept manicured and clean by large herds of Elk which feed regularly on the abundant European Oak (Quercus robur) saplings from encroachment into these fields and meadows. No fire is necessary. This again is the main animal component which is missing from California and other areas of the southwest or east. Previously, I wrote about the heavy numbers of  California Tule Elk in the San Joaquin & Central Valleys of California. Estimates are just over 500,000+ Tule Elk for which any numbers today are a mere fraction of what once was. Can you imagine the impact in tree understory for house cleaning they had and maintenance of grasslands and smaller meadows ? Then there is the issue of 10s of 1000s of native variety of Pronghorn Antelope. What impact did they have on grassland management ? Not to mention the Deer, California Grizzley Bears etc that would have impacted both chaparral and forested understories. In most cases we'll never know, but knowing something about the impacts they do have today in isolated locations where still abundant, helps us learn about the past. The loss of the abundant mega-fauna (Ground Sloths, Mastadons, etc) is almost never factored in, but clearly they must have made a major impact on the ecology of any ecosystem. But that's another subject and one we'll almost never completely understand. But there have been lately some studies showing that such animals were killed off by humans. And who would that have been ??? No one wants to touch this with a 10' pole.

Yellowstone Elk - (Associated Press - 2011)

As an example, we have the account of the Elk's impact on riparian woodlands in Yellowstone where to many Elk hindered Alders and Aspens from creating woodlands. Never under estimate the cleaning power of large abundant animal herds. The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park added a balance back into Nature. But Fire was not a necessary component for keeping understories clean, even though fire may have been present at times. The animals were so completely effective as vegetation eaters that without the wolves to keep the animals moving, whole riparian woodland ecosystems were disappearing or having a rough go at coming back. Again, it was NOT any fires that were accomplishing this. It was the abundance of large grazing animal herbivores. 
"Many scientists believe that the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995, after they had been eradicated from the park for decades through hunting, has caused a trophic cascade with results that are generally positive for the ecosystem. Wolves have sharply reduced the population of elk, allowing willows to grow back in many riparian areas where the elk had grazed the willows heavily. Healthier willows are attracting birds and small mammals in large numbers. "Species, like riparian songbirds, insects, and in particular, rodents, have come back into these preferred habitat types, and other species are starting to respond," says biologist Robert Crabtree of the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center. "For example, fox and coyotes are moving into these areas because there's more prey for them. There's been an erupting trophic cascade in some of these lush riparian habitat sites."
This would also explain the fire ecology studies like the article from Southern Methodist University which posted the study called: 
Ancient tree-ring records from southwest U.S. suggest today’s megafires are truly unusual
Image - SMU
What is truly fascinating about these findings is that during the changes in climate cycling of drought and wetter periods, the behavior of fires were the same. It was NOT a common occurrence for fires to reach the forest canopy and Megafires were not necessarily known back then. The main difference in modern times is climate shift or change and much greater human impact, something missing previously, even though the Native American eco-myths wish to tell us otherwise. In reality, those tree ring studies actually paint an opposite picture from the Indian Eco-Myths. See Sage Journals: 
A 1416-year reconstruction of annual, multidecadal, and centennial variability in area burned for ponderosa pine forests of the southern Colorado Plateau region, Southwest USA
This actually brings me to some photos I took in and around San Diego County this past April/May in 2013 to illustrate just how effective animals could be used today as a means of practical applications. These photos were taken in and around the Lake Henshaw area which is owned by Vista Irrigation District and leased to Cattle Ranchers. Take a look at the effectiveness of keeping tree understories cleaned, especially with riparian systems

Photo: Mine

Photo: Mine
Both these photos are illustrative of how large animals can be utilized to clean and maintain an understory of an overhead tree canopy. The top photo is the creek bed that comes out of Camp Mataguay Scout Camp south of Warner Springs CA. Many of these trees were actually established during that same heavy seasonal rainfall period I wrote about back in 1987 to 1983. Same with that ribbon of green life coming from Warner Springs to just south of the Glider Airport all the way west to Lake Henshaw. Mostly Cottonwoods there, but now very large and mature. Previously there was only grassland there with a handful of trees. Now there are hundreds stretching for several miles. The lower photo above of the Cottonwoods are a group of woods which have existed as far back as I can remember in the early 1960s when my family went for country drives. These are half way in between the Hwy junctions of 79 6 76 which is south and either a County or Cal-Trans Station to the north on Hwy 79. Turkeys were also out in these wide open spaces when I took this shot.

The idea of utilizing animals for forest health maintenance is also nothing new, as Joel Salatin actually works his pigs this way. He fences off an area of forest, allows the pigs to root around and feed exactly one month, then allows eleven months of forest understory regrowth. He calls the method, one month of ground disturbance and 11 months of healing. In this first video below, Joel talks about his Silviculture practices which replicate the disturbance caused by Buffalo and elk which would move through and disturb the understory every year. If there was a disruption in this natural animal disturbance for whatever reason, then fire would provide the physical removal of the understory build up, but never a crown fire. The main point is here, is this man is successful at replicating nature and has turned a farm that had no top soil originally into a lush environment working the system with animals. 
(As a caution, Joel momentarily for 30 seconds talks about his personal beliefs - hold off on the sarcasm & insults within your thoughts and focus on the main message & practices he expresses, which is basically replicating Nature. I don't believe everything he does or says either, but if you allow that stupid mode of ideological pride to take over, you'll miss the valuable lessons)
Forest Silviculture practices - Polyface Farms
Pastured Pigs - Part one
Pastured Pigs - Part two
Dr. Mercola Discusses Pigs with Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm
So what about the Native Americans ? Well, we've seen they are a lot like everyone else. There is no difference now or even back then. Humans excel at disturbing their surroundings. Many ancient civilizations did similar stupid things to their environment. The Aztecs in today's Mexico deforested their land for agricultural economics, then came drought and ruined the climate and any economy they once enjoyed. It's called greed and selfishness, just like today. Same in some other places in South America, Easter Island, the Maoris of New Zealand, the Colorado Plateau where ancient Natives called Anazasi which were very sophisticated with regards to building some incredible cities and an advanced form of agriculture went way to far, became greedy by removing too much forests for more farmland and no doubt deliberately burning the slash to grow more crops. When such historical disturbance was localized back then, only that area suffered as a result. However, today there is hardly a corner of the Earth that is not effected by dumb irresponsible behavior when is comes to land custodianship. Now the entire planet mechanisms are being effected and ecosystems which once took much abuse cannot take this any longer. The wild landscapes simply are not functioning normally. I saw this on my last visit where areas of Chaparral are not recovering fully or normally any longer. Some of this is due to lack of rainfall, but also there is more and more evidence of the underground disruption of the mycorrhizal grid which is effected by high concentrations of aluminum and other contaminants found in simple rainwater. I know, it's a long story, but I've got a post on this as well. Hope this at least puts to rest some of the Fables that have no doubt been exaggerated and embellished upon for some of the irresponsible land management programs which have done more harm than good.

Update - February 7, 2017: 
The Problem With The Ecological Indian Stereotype
Further reading:
Update: Also of note is an article from June 7th 2013 which explains the Proper uses of livestock to correct and heal the soil and Earth. Raising cattle and other livestock might prove key to combating the ongoing transformation of fertile fields into deserts. This actually replicates what Joel Salatin practices, which in itself is nothing more than replication of what is found and observed in Nature if one is intelligent & intuitive enough to recognize it.
How Livestock Might Revitalize Degraded Agricultural Lands

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